An Essay by Peter Orner
I often hear people say, I should read more books, I really should read more books. As if books are medicine. As if books are exercise. As if books are a low carb diet. Why is this? Why is reading books so equated with being good for you? Why do so many people – not you reading this, you, bookstore patron, are among the people who keep us writers alive – feel so guilty they don’t read enough? My thought is this, how about everybody reads whatever the hell they want to read and not what teachers tell them they have to read to be an educated person, or what the newspapers recommend they read, or what their friends or anybody else tells them they just got to read…Finding a book that speaks directly to you is like finding a soul mate. Best do it from your own gut. But the question, always, is how? How do I find this book that speaks to me and me alone? On this unanswerable question I’ve always had a weird sort of faith. I’m not a religious person, secular Jew that I am. But I have always clung, desperately, to the belief that the books I need will find me. Somehow. Someway. I’ll be in the stacks of a library and I’ll gravitate, god knows why, to an unfamiliar, almost faded name across a spine. In a bookstore, I won’t seek out what other people have laid on the table. Instead, I’ll try and find that single copy of a book published in 1978 that has waited on the shelf next to The Secret Life of Bees for thirty years for me to find it. I realize this sounds almost cosmic. But it’s the rule I live by. Not a day goes by when I try and find a book I didn’t have the day before. (Hence, when an earthquake comes my books will, I am certain, kill me.) And not just in bookstores or libraries, but anywhere. I remember once I was wandering around backroads inWisconsin (I’d been up north in a canoe and I was on my way home to Chicago) and I stumbled across a tiny community on a tiny island along Lake Koshkonong. Black Hawk Island. This was outside of a town called Fort Atkinson. We’re talking about fifty miles or so east of Madison. Anyway, I’m roaming around looking for ideas for stories when I drive by a small house with one of those roadside historical markers. The sign said a certain poet once lived in this house.
historical marker like an oracle when he’s run over by an ATV – but needless to say I found, out of nowhere, a poet I needed. A poet I’ve been carrying around with me since. Her name is Lorine Niedecker and she lived her whole life on the edge of Lake Koshkonong. She found me, I’ll always believe this. Read a Niedecker poem and you are immersed in the soul of a place, and a people. Not medicine, but everything I need to remember that all I have to do is concentrate on other things, and other people, and not be so damn full of myself. I read her this morning:
Mr. Van Ess bought 14 washcloths?
Fourteen washrags, Ed Van Ess?
Must be going to give em
to the church, I guess.
Peter Orner is the author of two collections of stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge and Esther Stories, and two novels, Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. He has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bard Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.
Written for Books Inc.'s November 2016 Newsletter